Support for Sinn Féin is driving change
A Letter from Ireland
By this time next week, the counting of ballots in the Council elections in the North will be underway.
It’s the same the world over, you can leave your hometown, but your hometown never leaves you. That is particularly true if you come from Belfast. So I’ll be keeping a close eye on what's happening there.
In 1983 Alex Maskey was the first Sinn Féin Councillor since 1920 to be elected in Belfast. For decades the party had been banned and Belfast City Council became a bye-word for unionist discrimination, corruption, and gerrymandering.
The first campaign I worked on was the council election of 1989. The candidate, who later went on to own the Irish Echo, was Máirtín Ó Muilleoir. I turned up on my first night of canvassing to be sent home by the candidate for wearing jeans! I should have escaped when I had the chance. Lesson learned I came back the next night. The campaign was one of energy, camaraderie, and driving change. We won. I was hooked. Belfast City Council was a bear pit. The Unionist capital of their “Northern Ireland”. The Union Jack flew above the City Hall 365 days a week. Infamously the Unionists hung a banner outside the building stating “Belfast Says No”. Irish Republicans were banned from parading in the City Centre. Even St. Patrick’s Day Parades were blocked. Sinn Féin councilors were shouted down, voted out of meetings, and banned from committees. They entered the Council in flak jackets, party offices were bombed, activists killed, and councilors were targeted for assassination. The British government refused to meet with Sinn Féin elected representatives and introduced censorship.
Sinn Féin councilors led from the front, challenging unionism in the chamber and the courts. They marched under the banner of “Our City Also”. There are some who will try and paint the North as if nothing has changed. They are wrong. The pace of change may be slow but Belfast and the North are unrecognizable. Support for Sinn Féin is driving change. Belfast is now a shared city at peace. Unionism is a political minority and no longer dictates the terms. They are one amongst equals. We have had a succession of Sinn Féin mayors including Alex Maskey, Maírtín Ó Mullioer, and the incumbent Tina Black. St. Patrick is celebrated and the flag no longer flies 365 days a year. The British government, while meeting with Sinn Féin, is currently not listening.
All of this was brought about by the leadership and tenacity of Councillors and most importantly by voters. Change can be incremental and slow. It builds until it is irresistible. The clock cannot be wound back. The Belfast of 1989 is gone. The Belfast of 2023 is being built. We have further to travel. I hope that next week is another way-marker in that journey. Sinn Féin will continue to drive the process of change and will hopefully become the largest party in councils across the North. Have a great weekend, Ciarán
Ciarán Quinn is the Sinn Féin Representative to North America. Each week he writes a letter from Ireland with news and analysis. It is featured in the weekly Friends of Sinn Féin USA Newsletter. Be sure you are subscribed to stay up to date.